Almost a week after a deadly earthquake struck Mexico, Israeli rescuers, including a team of ZAKA volunteers who recovered the body of a Mexico City rabbi, continue to work around the clock in the ongoing search and rescue mission.
Working in coordination with the Mexican Jewish rescue and recovery organization Cadena, the ZAKA volunteers located the corpse of Haim Ashkenazi Wednesday night in the rubble of the office building he was working in when the powerful 7.1 magnitude quake struck on Tuesday.
ZAKA International Rescue Unit chief officer Mati Goldstein, who announced the extrication on Sunday, said the team will remain at the scene until all the bodies are extricated from some 38 collapsed buildings.
“The ZAKA team, which was on the scene at the time the earthquake struck, will remain until we receive an update that there are no more missing people,” said Goldstein. “The team continued to work throughout Rosh Hashana and Shabbat in accordance with a ruling by the Chief Rabbi of Mexico, Rabbi Shlomo Tawil.”
Ashkenazi, who led the Kehillat Magen David synagogue, was related by marriage to Tawil.
In addition to ZAKA, a delegation of 71 soldiers and officers from the IDF’s Home Front Command, nicknamed “Kol Shofar Lamerhak” (“The sound of the Shofar carries afar”), that landed in the Mexican capital on Thursday is working at two sites in the city – a six-story office building and a collapsed residential building in the area of Tlalpan.
“We are working around the clock,” Lt. Liad Shachar, commander of the David Company from the Kedem Battalion in the Home Front Command’s rescue brigade, told The Jerusalem Post by phone from Mexico City.
Shachar said 50 people are believed to have been in the office building in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City when the top floors collapsed “like a pancake” when the earthquake struck, trapping them under debris.
“We have been working on that building for the past 72 hours straight and we will continue to work on it,” he said.
While Shachar said troops continue to hope to find survivors, two bodies have been pulled from the rubble of the two buildings, including a man the Mexicans had been working more than 20 hours to rescue. Search and rescue forces believe at least 45 people in the office building are dead.
“We are not sure if we’ll find anyone alive, but we always have hope. Even if we find one missing person alive, it means the world,” he said.
According to Luis Felipe Puente, national coordinator of civil protection for the Interior Ministry, 100 people were killed in Mexico City, 69 in Morelos State, 43 in Puebla State, 13 in the State of Mexico, four in Guerrero State and one in Oaxaca State.
At least 115 people have been rescued from the rubble.
Mexico was rattled by another earthquake Sunday and two more on Saturday, interrupting rescue operations at dozens of sites across the city, though Shachar said their work is not being affected.
Israel often aids countries struck by natural disasters, sending teams from the IDF Medical Corps and Home Front Command to provide search and rescue and medical aid in field hospitals in countries such Haiti, the Philippines, Japan, Turkey and Nepal.
On Friday, residents took to the streets to applaud the rescue team, and Shachar told the Post there is widespread support for the Israeli delegation from local residents and the Jewish community.
“The Jewish community here is strong. The citizens are spoiling us here,” he said.
While Mexican authorities have stated that rescue operations will continue for the next two weeks, the IDF delegation is slated to return to Israel on September 29 ahead of Yom Kippur.
Tuesday’s tragedy comes two weeks after an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck off the southern Pacific coast of Mexico leaving close to 100 dead in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. It came hours after the country held its national earthquake preparedness drill, and struck on the anniversary of the deadly 1985 quake which killed at least 5,000 people.
ZAKA Mexico commander Marcus Cain said “it is impossible to describe the scope of the disaster.”
“Millions of people are without power and there is great confusion and distress,” he said Sunday. “We are currently helping the local rescue forces evacuate the bodies and locate and rescue survivors in the disaster area.”
Meanwhile, a team from IsraAID, Israel’s largest humanitarian and rescue NGO, departed for Puerto Rico Sunday morning when the island’s airport reopened in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which struck last week killing 10 and leaving the nation flooded and without power.
Meanwhile, IsraAID co-CEO Yotam Polizer said three other teams, who are working closely with other Jewish relief agencies, remain in Houston, Miami and Mexico.
“There is a lot of work on the ground to provide relief, medical support, sanitation and psychological support,” said Polizer.
“Right now, we have 15 people on the ground in Houston, seven in the Florida Keys area, six in Mexico and four arriving in Puerto Rico.
“We are providing medical and psychological support for children who lost their houses in the more rural areas that no other organization has reached and, in Puerto Rico, our team just arrived today because the airport was shut down. We are working with the JCC and Chabad to provide clean water, distribute relief supplies and providing psychological support.”